When I was 24, my little brother died unexpectedly from a lethal combination of heroin and alcohol.
Raw and terrified, I sat down and wrote a letter to him.
I hardly even have words right now.
I miss you, I miss you, I miss you.
The largeness of my loss—and of my parents’ loss—-was overwhelming.
It was almost too much to stare into.
But instinctively, I reached towards my keyboard to find the words to begin assimilating what had happened. Writing to my brother was my very first tentative step on the bridge I’d found myself on—on one end, sat the life I’d known before my brother’s death, my family intact. On the other side loomed the blurry future, the eventual life I’d assemble in the years ahead.
Bleeding out words onto my keyboard helped me navigate the awful in-betweenness of grief.
The early days of loss are strange. I was devastated, and yet the reality of my brother’s death hadn’t metabolized. I didn’t truly believe he was gone—it took months for that to fully hit me. In the distorted, metallic state of shock, memories flung their way at me, and writing them down in the form of letters to him helped me capture them before they flitted away again, just as suddenly as they’d appeared.
I remember making you free chai lattes when you came to visit me at work. I remember when you sat with me at the hospital after I hurt my elbow attempting to rollerblade. I remember…
Writing made me cry. Some mornings I’d feel that need to cry sitting in my chest like a clenched fist that needed release. So I’d sit down and write Dear Will, and the tears would always come, and I’d feel the slight sweetness of relief.
The cat is nestled in some of your old shirts outside your bedroom door. I’m supposed to go through the shirts to see if there’s anything I want, when all I really want is you back here with us.
Writing also helped me feel like I was still connected to my brother. There was so little left—his ashes in a small box, some of his clothes haunting my parents house, a binder of the music he loved. What I felt mostly was the absence of him, his goneness. Writing to him—so personally, so directly—helped me feel like I was still tethered.
I wrote to him about my devastation, but also things we would’ve laughed about together:
Grandma and Grandpa came over for dinner last night. Grandma had all these sesame seeds all over her legs and chair from the pork. I wanted to grab a piece of pork, dip it in mustard and just swipe it up her leg. If you were here, I know we’d have gotten in trouble for laughing.
Words were there when I got angry, too.
You really fucked up. You made a choice that left us all lost and desperate and searching.
And writing gave me hope.
Over the months, looking back, I could see the small steps of progress I’d made in my grief. I could see the journey from the first manic, flitting letter I wrote to him to the pages filled with anger, the words made a loose map of those days.
I could see small signs that I was moving through the loss, and I wouldn’t feel so broken forever.
More goodness from Lynn:
Author: Lynn Shattuck
Editor: Renée Picard
Image: hollylay at Flickr